What do peonies have in common with the human spirit? Some might say nothing, but Oksana Movchan found a way to connect the two. Movchan’s whimsical paintings for the Bonnie Doon Valley Line LRT station represent the history of a once-beloved peony garden that challenged the odds because of the resilient farmers who founded it.
James Frederick Brander and his father, George, established the Silver Heights Peony Garden in Bonnie Doon after moving to Edmonton from Nova Scotia in 1921. Over 200 varieties of peonies were grown in the garden, despite the widespread belief that Edmonton’s climate was too cold. The flower farm quickly became a tourist hotspot.
A storyteller at heart, Movchan views the peony garden as a symbol of strength, hope, and making the most out of a difficult situation, feelings that Movchan knows all too well, having moved from Ukraine to Toronto to Edmonton.
“I really felt the cultural shock coming from a different country with a different mentality, culture, language, everything,” says Movchan.
Born and raised in Ukraine, Movchan is also the daughter of well-known Ukrainian artist, Vitaly Movchan. She studied at a highly selective art school as a teenager and later completed a PhD in printmaking. “Every kid is an artist — it just never ended for me or my sister,” says Movchan.
“My first couple years, my life was dedicated to my family and basically nothing else,” says Movchan. “I didn’t know anybody. Then I found an art supplies store, and I was just so happy.”
Movchan knew she would apply for the Bonnie Doon station, as she lived and raised her son in the area. She considered a few ideas, but ultimately the Silver Heights Peony Garden felt like the right choice.
“Winter is so long, and if people are waiting for the train and they’re in that environment where they’re surrounded by flowers, maybe that will warm them up or make them smile,” says Movchan.
It was essential to Movchan, one of 14 contributors chosen for the Valley Line LRT project, to involve the community in her work. Movchan asked students from Rutherford School to write a few sentences about their love for the area, from which she pulled quotes incorporated into her paintings.
“I love the story behind the artwork, the way that it digs into the history of the area, and the way she engaged with students,” says David Turnbull, director of public art and conservation for Edmonton Arts Council. “To me, that’s a really important aspect of public art, and how artists can work with communities and really help develop a strong sense of space and a strong sense of place.”
Adding quotes to the paintings appeals to Movchan’s love for storytelling. “I want people to be touched by the quotes,” says Movchan.
The final product — four LRT shelters, each representing one of four seasons — is on glass panels featuring large peonies bursting with colour. The quotes — in English and French — intermingle with the stems. “It’s personal and universal, and that’s the beauty of art. We’re all human, and we have the same feelings and challenges. And if artists can find that universal form, art can touch someone’s heart. That’s the biggest and main motivation for an artist.